To e- or not to e-(Book)

A well-known Canadian author and I were walking into an event at the 2010 Vancouver International Writers Festival. She was trying to identify what she felt was different about the festival that year. The publishers, she said, seemed out of sorts somehow.

I pointed to the Kobo tent, where a long line of people waited to put their names in a box to win a free eReader.

“Do you think that has anything to do with it?” I said.

We looked at each other and shrugged.

Once we were seated inside, the moderator announced a draw for a free Kobo. He made a few uneasy jokes about the disappearance of books. Kobo was one of the sponsors of the festival.

The price war between what was then Canadian-owned Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle had begun earlier that year.

I imagine it this way: while the big box stores and publishing conglomerates are busy fighting it out, somebody looks up to see a mid-air battle of two fire breathing eReaders. Everyone watches, wondering how the outcome up there will affect the swordplay on the ground.

That’s the thing. Nobody seems to know what the eBook means for the future of publishers, writers, and booksellers.

Much less the book itself.

Opinions vary wildly. Some point to the new freedom and independence for writers. We won’t need those pesky publishing houses anymore, doling out piddling royalties or those bothersome editors tightening up our prose. Others outline the seven easy steps to making millions writing eBooks. A few go so far as to insist that the book, as object, will go the route of the DVD—and maybe as suddenly.

Skeptics claim that an eBook will never replace the pleasures of the book itself.  Prophets of doom warn that the eBook is yet another way in which corporations can snatch bread from the mouths of starving writers.

Until recently, I was pretty much in the second camp. The eBook seemed the latest in a series of bizarre events in an industry in which everyone—agents, editors, authors, marketing departments, distributors, and booksellers—is intent on working against each other.

Two things changed my mind. First, a sense that the few remaining doors to traditional publishing had closed to me. And second, a conversation I had with local software developer John Neffenger who has discovered that he can dramatically improve the quality of an eBook by using fixed-format PDFs instead of EPUB with its “reflowable content.” What’s more, these PDFs can fit a variety of eReaders.

What occasioned my conversation with Neffenger was my increasing frustration with the publishing world. In the last 15 years I had searched for a small press willing to bring out a paperback edition of my first book of short stories along with a new collection. The short answer from editors and then an agent who wanted to represent me was that no one was interested in short fiction any more. Everyone wanted novels. And yet I kept seeing really great short story collections being published here and in the US. But even those small presses said no thanks. 

I had also written a book of non-fiction, a handbook for journal keepers, which my agent got excited about. “Be still my heart,” began the email she sent after she’d read the manuscript. This is what was going to make me viable as an author—something along the lines of self-help. If I could prove myself in sales, a publishing house just might allow me to bring out a slim volume of literary fiction.

Maybe.

Alas, it was not to be. The editors who saw it said the book was not aimed at a specific marketing niche. They complained that it promised neither health nor wealth in seven easy steps. They were right. Call me old fashioned, but I have qualms about promising what I know I can’t deliver. Besides, your health and wealth are none of my business. What I wanted to offer in book form was simply what I had offered in workshops over the past 20 years—exercises that might enhance people’s journal keeping practice. The results were up to the reader.

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